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Congress advances bill to pressure Russia on human rights

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MOSCOW — A bill that would impose sanctions on Russians who commit human rights violations moved ahead in the U.S. Congress on Thursday despite resistance from the Obama administration and angry denunciations from Kremlin officials.

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named in memory of a corruption-fighting Russian who worked for an American law firm and died in police custody, was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Two more committees must weigh in before a vote of the entire House, and the Senate has yet to act on its version.

Magnitsky, a tax adviser for the Hermitage Capital investment company, was 37 when he died here in pretrial detention in 2009. After discovering that stolen Hermitage documents were being used to plunder $230 million from the Russian treasury through a fraudulent tax return, Magnitsky accused tax and police officials of the crime. They charged him instead, and nearly a year later he died in custody, his body marked by signs of beating.

Since then the affair has become deeply entangled in ever complicated U.S.-Russian relations. Human rights advocates have lobbied hard for the bill, which requires publicly naming those Russians connected to the case, denying them visas and freezing their assets. The State Department would have to deliver yearly reports on enforcement.

The Obama administration has been deeply critical of Russia’s refusal to hold anyone accountable for Magnitsky’s ill treatment and death, but it has argued that a secret visa blacklist it drew up last summer is more effective and avoids publicly challenging Moscow.

Russian officials, who say the United States is meddling in their internal affairs, have vowed to retaliate if the bill is passed.

The dispute has boiled over into Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, which is expected to become complete this summer. (The Russian parliament on Thursday set a ratification vote for July 4.) Membership has been a hard-fought victory for the White House, aimed at making Russia a more integral part of the world community and subject to the rules of international organizations.

But in order for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia’s new status, the United States must grant Russia permanent normal trade relations and repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment as it applies to Moscow. The Cold War-era amendment was meant to pressure the Soviet Union to allow the emigration of Jews, and there appears to be near-universal agreement that its time has passed and that it should be lifted. But ardent supporters of the Magnitsky act, such as Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), are intent on replacing Jackson-Vanik with Magnitsky, despite pressure from American businesses.

Speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia on Thursday, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk reiterated the importance of removing Russia from Jackson-Vanik without tying it to passage of the Magnitsky bill.

“Our priority is for the Congress to lift Jackson-Vanik in a clean bill which deals only with the issue relevant to our ability to maintain our competitiveness,” Kirk said.

Some Russian experts argue that replacing Jackson-Vanik with Magnitsky runs the risk of provoking a destructive tit-for-tat with Russia without achieving the goal of furthering human rights.

“I fear we’ll end up in an endless round of recriminations,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “What happened to Sergei Magnitsky is appalling, but the problem is all of the instruments we have are difficult to apply.”

She suggested that businessmen themselves hold the most powerful weapons and that if they insisted on changes in behavior as a condition to invest, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin might well pay attention.

“Attracting more U.S. business is a priority for Russia,” she said. “If businessmen told Putin they were concerned about their security, that might have an impact. The business community has the leverage to make that case.”

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